It’s not rape if:
You’d been arguing with him.
You’re in therapy.
You’re on medication.
If you ever follow high-profile rape trials (something I sometimes torture myself by doing) you will recognise the tactics that barrister Edward uses to pick apart Gayle’s rape accusation in court. Nina Raine’s play, transferring to the West End after opening at the National Theatre last year, lays bare the brutal and unequal collision of sexual crimes and the justice system in provocative style. By exploring both the professional and marital tensions between a trio of barristers and their wives and girlfriends, Raine prods at the places where law falls short of mercy, and where empathy—perhaps—mistakes revenge for justice. The supposed clarity of the law cannot contain the messiness of human lives, Raine suggests, and the smug, rich barristers of the play are particularly ill-equipped to reconcile the tidy legal narratives they craft with the way they themselves really live.
Raine is a sharp, skilled playwright, and though the play’s two halves feel slightly lopsided, this doesn’t really detract from the brisk pace and continually compelling scene work. She is deft with apparently casual conversations whose real purpose always eventually becomes clear. If there are moments when the subtext is maybe too heavy-handed—a conversation about the meaning of Greek tragedy, for example, and how it’s fundamentally the collision of irreconcilable perspectives—sometimes letting the seams show just demonstrates how well-crafted the play is.
This craft is matched by that of the actors, whose sense of rapport with one another is particularly rich. The various dinner party scenes feel wonderfully real, down to trailing off into awkward goodbyes and playful jibes that carry an undertone of old resentments. The performances are unflagging, bleeding into the dimness of each scene’s sharp blackout ending, the characters lingering as the actors wander away.
When people talk about wanting challenging, thoughtful theatre, this is surely the sort of play they’re imagining. An interchange of ideas still underpinned with fully-developed characters and motivations, and a topic that all but demands a debate on the ride home.
It’s not rape if:
You don’t fight back.
You don’t phone the police.
You text him later.
You act too normal.
You act too crazy.
The question for me is whether this is actually a responsible debate to be having. Raine almost raises an interesting and perhaps necessary question about language and degree— in a case of murder, after all, we separate between an intentional death and an accidental one, but rape charges allow no such distinction. But this angle is glanced at and then glossed over, and thus the only conclusion the play allows is that you either admit everything under the umbrella of rape, or you’re allowed to exclude events that don’t seem, you know… rapey enough. And as the first act so vividly demonstrates, for some people, nothing ever falls into that category.
And it’s really a vivid depiction. It’s worth asking, if you plan to see the play: how willing are you to watch a woman being aggressively doubted, questioned, dismissed? It made me viscerally angry to watch—a response I think would suit Raine just fine. But surely we already know that this happens? Surely we don’t need to see it yet again—and worse, to debate whether or not subjecting rape survivors to such treatment is acceptable? Do we really need another play that suggests that maybe women sometimes just lie about being raped?
It’s not rape if:
It doesn’t destroy your life.
You forgive him.
The two rapes which form the two poles of the debate are somewhat troubling, too. The treatment of the first act rape survivor suggests an obvious miscarriage of justice, and there is initially some promise in its sharp class coding: she’s poor, she’s drunk, she’s depressed, she’s been a victim of past abuse. Class stereotypes are brutally deployed against her to undermine her case, suggesting an intersection of classist and sexist injustices. But when laid opposite the resolutely posh second rape—a marital rape between two wealthy, highly educated people; a potential centrepiece of a custody dispute—the suggestion becomes that really, rape is a purely working-class crime. A rich, intelligent man raping his rich, intelligent wife is up for debate: for is it really rape if she’s clever enough to use it to her advantage? Is it really rape if they’re married? Is it really rape if he didn’t mean it? Obvious brutalities are poor people problems; it’s all more nuanced for the rich, surely. The question of the second rape slips away with surprising ease, only deepening the impression that it wasn’t real, that of course a barrister could never rape his wife.
Through a certain lens, it’s not really a play about rape at all, just one that features rape as a plot point. It’s more about fidelity, honesty, the things we know and don’t know and won’t know about the people closest to us. But the title—Consent, complete with dictionary definition printed on the program and tube posters—suggests otherwise. There are types of consent at work throughout the play—when you marry, are you tacitly consenting to your partner’s known flaws?—but the word’s primary connotation is obviously sexual.
So it’s a good debate, in the sense that it’s juicy and well-written and compellingly performed. But is it a good debate ethically? Are you up for asking, yet again, whether or not women lie about rape, and whether the systems of prosecuting rape are fair? Do you really feel like it’s not a question that has been aired enough, like we are collectively, culturally, too credulous when it comes to women who claim they have been assaulted—especially women who claim anything other than a violent assault in starkly horrifying circumstances?
Of course that is, as the play’s prosecutors would point out, a series of leading questions. But as even Raine’s most resolutely intellectual characters find, it’s not always possible—or good—to remain objective and detached.
Consent is on until 11 August 2018 at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Click here for more details.